Some things are easy to learn from someone telling you how to do them. Like:
- Putting on a hat
- Clapping your hands
- Boiling an egg
But there are other things you just have to watch someone else do first in order for you to really get it. Examples:
- Parallel parking
- Ironing a shirt
- Freelance copywriting (this is the one we’re mainly concerned with here today)
Most jobs are like this. When I was 17 and started waiting on tables, they didn’t hand me a manual and say, “read this.” They paired me up with an experienced waitress and said, “follow her around and watch everything she does!”
They call this shadowing, and they do it in a million different industries, from air traffic control to welding.
Today I’m going to let you shadow me on a freelance copywriting job.
I’ll walk you through the entire process, start to finish. You’ll see exactly what I did, how I did it, and even what I was thinking every step of the way.
And once you see me go through the steps, it will be 10x easier for you to do it, too.
NOTE: This happens to be an email copywriting job. But copywriting is copywriting. With a little tweaking you can apply these exact same lessons to just about any form of copywriting imaginable.
Every copywriting job starts with the brief
Before you even think about writing anything, you need to get a brief from your client.
The word “brief” sounds formal, like a meeting where everyone’s wearing suits and holding dossiers with charts and graphs and whatnot. But in reality it’s usually just an email or a phone conversation where the client gives you key information about the project (for example, how many words you need to write).
Some briefs are more thorough than others.
I’ve worked with clients who hand you a mind-blowingly detailed brief that reads like a Freudian psychoanalysis of their target customer. These are usually bigger, more sophisticated companies.
But many of the small businesses you’ll be working with — at least for a while — will give you some basic information and send you off to the races. That’s perfectly OK. I’ve worked with briefs that are little more than a Dunkin Donuts napkin with three sentences scribbled on it.
The only thing that matters is that you get enough information to do your job.
If the brief doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, you can and should ask your client questions to help you fill in the blanks. Again, totally normal. Just make sure you ask them all at once. The last thing the client wants is to get constant emails from you throughout the project. It’s annoying and it reduces his confidence in you.
In the job you’re shadowing me on, the client’s brief was a simple email that contained the following info:
- The type of business I was writing for — a pest control company
- The goal of the emails I was hired to write — to get readers to schedule a free pest inspection
- Who the emails were being sent to — mostly middle aged women with families
- The types of services the company offered — rodent removal, bedbug removal, etc. (each email would pitch a different service)
- How many emails were needed — 12 (they planned to send their customers one email per month for a year)
Could I have used more information than this? Sure. But this was enough to get the job done. Remember, that’s all you care about.
Now that you understand the basics of what a brief looks like, I’m going to show you the exact details of how I tackled this job.
First, let’s talk about…
The secret to nailing a freelance copywriting job
One of the most common questions I get from new copywriters is:
“What if I do all the work, only to find out the client doesn’t like any of it?”
The answer is: You don’t do all the work.
Yes, you heard me right. You do not do all the work.
You do a little bit of the work. Then you show that little bit to the client to make sure he likes it before you do the rest.
I call this the Green Light Method. I’ve been using it for years, and it’s one of the “secrets” of my success.
In the job we’re discussing, I initially wrote and sent the client the first email only. Then, once he approved it, I went ahead and wrote the rest. And I did it with full confidence that he would love it because I knew I was on the right track.
But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend he wanted me to make some changes to that first email. Since it’s just one email, it wouldn’t be hard to do. Meanwhile, I’d be learning exactly what he wanted the rest of the emails to look like so I could nail those going forward.
With the Green Light Method, you win either way.
I can’t tell you how many freelance copywriters go off and write all 12 emails in one shot. Then, if the client isn’t happy, they’re completely screwed. They have to go back and rewrite them all!
To be a top freelance copywriter, you need to make sure you’re on the right track before 95% of your work is done.
The psychology of writing a winning outline
Now that you’ve been briefed and you have a game plan for ensuring the client will love your final copy, it’s time to write an outline.
There are 3 big benefits to having an outline:
- It makes it easier to write the email (since it gives you a “roadmap” to follow)
- You can use the same outline for all 12 emails, making your job and life way easier
- You can even send the client the outline for his approval, before you write a single word of the actual copy
Keep in mind we’re not just writing an outline that sounds nice. We need to craft it strategically so it’ll have a good chance of achieving the results the client is looking for.
The best way to do it is to begin with the end in mind.
From the client’s brief, we know two things for sure about what this email needs to look like when it’s finished:
- It needs to offer one specific pest inspection service (e.g. black widow spider inspection)
- It needs to end with us asking the reader to schedule a free pest inspection
So, working backwards from there…
What do we have to say to the reader in order to motivate her to want to schedule her free inspection?
How about telling her how the free inspection can benefit her? OK, good start. But how can we make it better?
What about mentioning the dangers that each pest poses to the reader and her family? That gives her even more motivation to take you up on your offer. Getting better…
But there’s still room for improvement.
Can you see how?
Here’s a hint: How can we make sure the reader opens and reads all 12 of the emails the client is going to send her?
Keep in mind that most people won’t take the free inspection on the first few emails. Just like you don’t jump at most of the free offers that make their way to your inbox.
So we need to avoid the reader seeing an email from our client and thinking, “Oh, they’re just trying to get me to do a free inspection so they can try to sell me afterward. No thanks!”
Instead, we need to get her to think, “Hey, I like these guys! They send emails that are really helpful and useful. I’ll keep opening them, even if I’m not interested in their free pest inspection just yet.”
Did you catch that? The key to writing a good marketing email is in the above paragraph. It’s being helpful and useful. (Sonia Simone from Copyblogger calls this the cookie content approach.)
So… How can we be helpful and useful to the reader while also achieving our goal of getting her to keep reading our emails — and ultimately schedule a free pest inspection?
How about giving her some expert tips on how to avoid and prevent infestations in her home?
Sounds like a great option, doesn’t it? I mean, what mom doesn’t want to protect her family from harmful pests, right?
OK, let’s recap this real quick…
In order to achieve our goals, here’s what needs to get covered in each email:
- Introduce a specific pest “threat”
- Educate the reader on why that threat is potentially harmful to her and her family
- Give her tips on how to avoid and prevent the threat
- Offer her a free inspection to ensure she and her family are 100% pest free
That’s it. We could complicate it, but there’s no need to. (And it probably wouldn’t work as well.)
Those four points above were my entire outline for this project.
I sent it to the client with a quick explanation of why I thought it would be effective, and he instantly approved.
Notice that all of the planning above is based on simple logic and common sense.
For the most part, that’s all you need.
Conduct research before you write
Sometimes clients give you everything you need and you don’t need to do any additional research on your own.
For example, if you’re writing an About Us page for a web design business, the brief will probably tell you everything you need to know about the company.
But there are lots of copywriting jobs where you’ll want to do a bit of extra fact finding beyond what the client gives you.
For instance, in the job you’re shadowing me on, I didn’t know anything about:
- The specific dangers posed by pests like mice, bed bugs, etc., or
- How to protect your home against pests
As you’ll recall from my outline, those are both things I needed to know before I could start writing. I could have asked the client about it, but why waste his time when I can easily Google it instead? The less you rely on your clients to help you do a great job, the more they’ll love you.
Time to consult Google…
First, let’s look for the “scary” stuff that will help us motivate people to action:
Next, let’s find some expert tips to help readers kick some pest ass:
Voila, there you have it.
Everything you need to know to write an email about black widow spiders, right at your fingertips.
20 years ago this same type of research would have taken hours or days.
It’s a great time to be a freelance copywriter.
Write the headline
OK — you’ve got a solid brief, an outline, and you’re armed with some expert pest control knowledge that will help you provide value to the reader.
Now you’re finally ready to do some actual writing.
All copywriting starts with a headline. For emails, we usually call this the subject line.
A lot of people over-complicate this part. But there are really only two things your subject line needs to do:
- Get the person to keep reading
- Tell the truth
#2 isn’t just there for moral reasons. It’s easy to get people to open an email with a headline that overexaggerates, or says something crazy like, “iPhone 6s recalled for spontaneous combustion.” But your readers will be pissed when they see it’s bullshit.
For email marketing, there are two basic strategies for writing your subject line:
- The straightforward approach. This is where you tell readers exactly what they’ll find out in the email. (e.g. Top 10 hairstyles for men)
- The curiosity approach. Here, you tease readers with a line that makes them want to open the email, but doesn’t tell them what they’ll find inside it. (e.g. Make all your friends jealous)
To find out more about both of these techniques, watch this cool video from Dan Pink:
I decided to give the client a couple of straightforward subject line options:
I tend to like the straightforward approach better than the curiosity approach because:
- It’s less risky (a subject line like “Hey.” can easily backfire)
- A subject line about a deadly spider lurking inside your house is pretty compelling and should get plenty of people to open the email
Btw, the reason I included two options is because some clients like to test out a couple of different headlines to see if one works better. So it never hurts to give the client a couple to choose from.
Write the beginning
Your introduction is very important, because it sets the stage for the rest of the email.
If you mess it up, the person on the other end of it will click the trash button almost immediately, without a second thought.
But if you do it right, she’ll happily read the whole email and may even take you up on your offer at the end.
There are two things that will help make your introduction successful:
- Expand on what you told her in the headline. The fact that she opened the email means you’ve piqued her interest with the subject line. But now you need to raise the stakes in order to guarantee she reads the whole message. This is where we’re going to tell her more about the specific dangers black widow spiders pose to her and her family.
- Build trust. People do business with people they trust. Show her that you’re a helpful, friendly person who first and foremost has her back. Don’t worry about selling right now. Her inbox is bombarded by companies trying to sell her things. She ignores 99.9% of them. The only way to get her to let her guard down is by offering value first.
Take a look at what I ended up with — it’s simple but effective:
Notice how I don’t say a word about the pest control company, the services they provide, or the free inspection. Right now I’m just building rapport and offering her something useful. She doesn’t care about us. Why should she? She’s concerned with making her life better. Always remember that.
Also notice how difficult it would be for her to stop reading the copy at any given point. With every sentence she will want to know how to avoid black widows more and more. One of my favorite copywriters, Joe Sugarman, calls this the “slippery slope.” I think about it every time I write a piece of copy.
Write the middle
Now that we’ve established rapport with the reader and started to build trust in the introduction, it’s time to deliver on our promise and give her some expert tips on how to stay safe from black widow spiders.
This section of the email has two jobs. One is very straightforward: Listing out the tips themselves in bullet point format (bullets make them easy to read).
The other is a little more subtle. It’s where we transition into the offer for the free inspection.
You don’t want to just jump from “here’s how to avoid black widows” to “want a free inspection?”. You need to connect the offer to the “value” portion of the email so that it feels like even more value (which it is).
Watch how I did it here:
Do you see how seamlessly that sets up the free inspection we’re about to offer?
If we’d just gone straight from the tips to the offer, the copy would start to feel like a sales pitch disguised as a value email. The reader’s guard would shoot right back up.
Instead, we want the entire email to feel valuable.
And we accomplish that by making sure that the transition stays connected to the value:
Do-it-yourself tips –> call for help if you see a black widow –> btw, since black widows are good at hiding, a professional inspection is a good idea.
If you look closely you’ll see that the entire transition feels like we’re just giving her additional tips — not segueing into an offer.
Write the end
Alright. You’ve established rapport with the reader, earned her trust, delivered value — now it’s finally time to present your offer.
Here are some tried and true guidelines for writing this last portion of the email:
1. Add scarcity to the offer.
You need to either limit the number of people who can redeem the offer, or limit the amount of time it’s available. Otherwise, people won’t respond. They’ll say, “I’ll think about this later.” But when they close the email, they’ll forget about it and never come back. Your offer will also feel less valuable to them if there’s no limit on it, because we value things more when they’re scarce. (When was the last time you were thankful for air?)
2. Mention at least one benefit.
No one cares about a free pest inspection, 50% off of teeth whitening, or a complimentary singing lesson. They care about keeping their family safe, having an attractive smile, and becoming the next American Idol. In other words, they’re interested in the big benefit of the offer, not the offer itself. So make sure to mention that when you present it.
3. Write a very specific call to action.
This isn’t the time to be subtle. Be direct and tell the reader exactly what to do next. Be specific — don’t give vague instructions. If there’s any doubt about how to take action, your reader won’t do anything at all. There’s no such thing as being too detailed here.
4. Include a “PS”.
Most people will skim your copy, not read every word. Adding a PS section at the very end acts as a safety net…you can’t skim past the last line! This is a great place to repeat the offer, the scarcity, and the call to action.
That’s it, you’re done. Congratulations!
I could walk you through the remaining 11 emails, but the process for each one was exactly the same. Except they were even less work since we front-loaded a lot of the effort.
That’s the beauty of having a proven system. Each job may be a little different, but this is the same basic process I — and other copywriters I’ve mentored — have successfully used thousands of times before. And with a little bit of effort, it will work for you, too.
Frequently asked questions
What did you do when you were done writing the copy?
When I finish a piece of copy I put it away and don’t look at it for at least one full day. Then I go back and read it over. I guarantee that when you do this you will find some mistakes or areas you can improve. You can repeat this process multiple times if you want to.
What software did you use to write the copy?
I write everything in Google Docs. It’s free, simple, and easy to use.
How did you send the copy to the client?
Once it was done, I put it into a Microsoft Word Document and emailed it to him.
What do you do if a client doesn’t know how many emails they need?
When that happens, I always recommend that we start off with 5. It’s a good number to start with — not too many, not too few.
How long did it take you to write this one email piece?
It took me less than an hour to write the first email. That includes a few minutes to think about what to write, as well as looking up facts (e.g. from Wikipedia) about black widow spiders to drive the copy.
How long did it take from the time you got the brief to the time you delivered all 12 emails?
The client wanted all of the emails delivered within 2 weeks. But since I do my best work under pressure, I procrastinated almost all of it until the day before it was due, then banged out all of the emails in one day.
How similar were the other emails?
All of the emails were very similar in that they all followed the same basic formula — introducing the problem (e.g. black widow spiders are deadly, and can hide in your attic), showing people what they can do to avoid it, and including a call to action.
The call to action in particular was more or less identical from email to email (contact us for a free inspection), though the wording changed a bit in each one depending on what happened to roll off my fingertips at that moment.
The one thing that changed, of course, was the topic of each email: Each one was about a different “pest” to watch out for. But I used the same “formula” for all of them because it worked well and the client liked it.
How did you charge the client? Fixed or hourly?
When the client initially put the job up on Upwork, he made it a fixed-price job. So I went with that and charged him a fixed price, which he happily paid.
How much did you get paid for this?
I collected over $500, pretty good considering I was brand new and did most of the work in one day.
How much do clients pay for emails in general?
This varies widely depending on the situation, but I’ve since been able to command 3-4x the amount I charged for this email series (remember it was my first one).
How did you get paid?
Since I found this client on Upwork, he put the entire payment into escrow before I started working. When I finished, the payment was released to me quickly and easily.
Should I use Upwork too?
I want to become a copywriter, but I don’t have experience. How do I get started?
Use my Crystal Ball Technique. It’s the fastest way to go from having no experience to getting your first paid copywriting job and beyond.
What’s your biggest surprise, insight, or takeaway?
When I was done shadowing that waitress, no one asked me what I learned. They should have, but they didn’t.
I’d love to know what YOU learned here today.
In the comments below, tell me your one biggest surprise, insight, or takeaway from this post. It will help me help you better in the future…but the truth is copywriting is one of my favorite things to discuss! So let’s get the conversation going.
PS: If you have a question about freelancing/copywriting, you can ask it in the comments as well, and I’ll do my best to answer.
(Flickr Creative Commons images via Liz)